©1998 A.D. Sullivan
Look At All the Lonely People
That Heavenly Coffee
The Bertrand Island Constroversy
Dear Frog Legs
(for Robert Frost)
She cried because of you,
each word a brick built upon her back,
heavy with the burdons of passion,
Your poems strangely comforting,
building for her a dilapodated old mansion
into which she crawled during storms.
She bore you to bed at night,
whispering through the rafters of your words,
each shadow worried over, pondered on,
each word dropped into her head like coins.
Her mind was a wishing well,
into which you fed your dreams,
promises never kept
while her fingers turned
page after page
prompting the words to dance on the bedsheets,
lively little pixies poking fun,
picking the book from her sleeping chest,
there I found on her brow
the deepest of frowns.
Look At All the Lonely People
January 9, 1995
I'm beginning to suspect the worst about the nature of civilization. Although the great white flight from the cities has been contributed to fear of blacks and violence, I'm finding a whole new reason to flee: loneliness.
By this I don't mean you can't find people when you want them. The rural and suburban world after dark is a barren as the moon. Twenty-four hour shops hide among the weeds along some highways. But once away from the buzzing roadways and into the gentle world of streets and parks, you could die of hunger or thrust between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Some of these places won't even let you park on the street, leaving their world a stark landscape of unilluminated houses and sharp picket fences.
In the city, a tumble out the door at any time, day or night, is bound to uncover someone if only the bums going through your trash. People wander up and down the streets, even in the deadest hours. Store accommodate them. In Hoboken, Dunkin Donuts never closes, and along with the Quik Chek, the 1st Street Market and the PATH news stand, it forms a link in a chain of night time sanity for those of us who sometimes need to get a cup of coffee or need a pack of gum.
Sometimes, when I visit friends in the suburbs, I find myself cursing the lack of such institutions, especially when I am starting back late and need a jolt of caffeine to keep me awake over the long drive. Only recently, did I come to understand the reason for their scarcity in that other part of the world. The old argument if sheer numbers. The populations density of the city makes it profitable for such places to exist. I'll admit there is some credence to this, though that argument grows less and less valid as the population centers grow, and more and more people retreat from the cities and fatten up the suburban centers.
Another argument is the style of life. In the city, the pace and excitement keep people active much later. The suburbs often serve as a bedroom for the cities, people go there to rest up from their experiences here, and do not need the same kind of institutions. This is also true to a degree-- though I suspect even the weariest commuter is rarely asleep by nine.
The issue here, I think is, that people in the city are so lonely, they need such institutions and the continual superficial contact with clerks, store keepers, waitresses and the like to remind them they are not as abjectly alone as they think. In the suburbs, people have already settled down. They are often intimately involved with community life, through the church or their business, or the gossip of wives and neighbors -- or at least this is the perception city people have when they pick up their lives and move there. For many people in and out of the city, suburban life is supposed to be the modern interpretation of what a small town was in the earlier half of this century.
It is not. In some ways, it is a worse trap than the city. Come nine o'clock and the lights go out, so do many people's lives, seeking the shelter of their bedrooms rather than the comfort of strangers. In some ways, trading locations has actually locked them into even tighter spaces, where when they find the need for company, they sneak out passed the bedroom doors of their loved ones to a kitchen full of appliances but no clerks.
That Heavenly Coffee
We sang the "Chock-full-of-nuts" song
at 3 a.m. outside her window, three
very drunk stooges trying to say what
we had never said to her face, sang
and ran, our footsteps echoed by the
old woman's shout that she was calling
the police, though in the morning
there was coffee, cross-buns and aspirin
at each of our doors, and a note saying:
"I love you, too, you crazy men!"
The Bertrand Island Constroversy
You knew the place was magic when you drove under the arch, the colors changing from year to year with the latest sale on paint, bright colors that spoke: Carnival, promising wondrous things to be found here.
As a young child I came to Bertrand Island for the Summer fun, and discovered an extra-ordinary world that I compared to Oz.
Others from three generations have said as much, mothers, who remember going there with their own mothers, taking their own children as recently as 1984.
"Tuesdays were discount night," my friend's grandmother told me." The small rides were only a dime."
People thought of it as a family place, one of those local amusement parks to which people didn't have to spend a whole day traveling to reach. While it felt like a tiny Coney Island, this park drew many locals from around Lake Apatcong, locals who showed a strong interest in keeping it wholesome and safe.
When Frank, Jimmy and I came here in the mid-1970s, the park was already in decline. Even then, the kids loved it, despite the fact that we three were drunk and trying to kill each other on the bumper cars -- after which we tried to find Richi's house somewhere further out on the small island. The dog that leaped out at us as we walked up from the park and into the narrow country lanes just above the water line remains among my most vivid memories of the place, Frank and Jimmy both leaping behind me so that I was the likely target of the dog's slashing teeth. I also remember later wandering down to the park in Aug. 1983 from a party at Richi's house, my daughter and Rocky climbing about ride after ride as I talked with my ex-wife near one of the food vendors. When the park finally closed in 1985, Jimmy, Richi, his sister and my boss Bob nearly got arrested for taking pictures on the property, the police officer having orders from some one higher up in the town's government to keep strangers off. Eventually, the town came in with bulldozers and knocked down the rides and the buildings so as to keep curious kids from wandering through them.
The first of the park's three dozen buildings was constructed just after World War One, a celebration of the new boom economy that had resulted from the war. The place took on another purpose when the stock market crashed a decade later, and people flocked here as a means to relieved their pain, basking in the fantasy long enough to forget the devastation of the world as they knew it. The wooden roller coaster which ran up until 1984 was the oldest of its kind to still pass federal regulations. It's merry-go-round, a machine manufactured in the classic era of late 1800s, was told to Great Adventure when the park closed.
In its heyday, people used to line up outside the park, waiting for hours to enter. Cotton Candy, hot dogs, boat riders, a haunted house and all the rest, gave the place a unique flavor, a strange and wonderful piece of family entertainment stuck out in the North west corner of New Jersey. From the top of the roller coaster you could see lights on the far end of the lake, shimmering over the water at night. Since the roads were inadequate to handle the rush, the Lackawanna rail road installed a trolley, riding here from Landing, Pennsylvania, one small piece of a vast network of rails that once serviced this part of the state. That, of course, was before the once booming steel industry collapsed, resulting in the closing of iron mines through Western Jersey, and with them, whole towns to which only the railroads went, ghost towns listed on some older maps without roads.
"This is just another old thing vanishing," said one of the older residents of Bertrand Island's residential section, one of those residents who stayed here year round through the harsh winters. He and others just stared over the abandoned park when we came to capture the remains of its dilapidated buildings on film before the bulldozers came. It was a world of broken glass and abandoned buildings, as we wandered its paths as if through the wreckage of a beached ship, one more ghost town added to the rest.
"There's no profit in having this kind of things any more," the man said." That's why they're building condos."
In 1985, most residents, and many people East of the lake, had fond childhood memories about the park. One 30 year-old man claimed he used to come here three times a week.
"It was a place where you could be alone and not feel lonely," he said. "That's a lot different from modern amusement parks. People here smiled and laughed, and it had the air off the lake, and the Lake Side Inn, which would admit anyone."
Plans to close the park were announced as early as 1983, but the closing was delayed long enough for Woody Allen to film his movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo" here in 1984. Then, the place was closed down forever. But as we walked through the place, the spirit of the former laughter still clung to each building and ride. We could even hear the echo of boats passing through the Love Tunnel, even though all its boats were upturned on the shore, paint pealing from their bottoms like sunburned skin.
Even the bumper cars remained, frozen in the darkness of the nearly completely sealed building -- we poking our noses though section of metal kids had pulled back for a glimpse of their ghostly bodies. We could almost hear our former selves screaming drunkeningly at each other to stop. Some of the kids who joined us to peer in, looked confused and may hurt, wondering why on one had thought enough of their generation to save this place for them.
"It's always been a clean place," one lady from Paterson said after hearing of the closing. "I remembering going there to swim. I remember the soft sand under foot."
In the days after the closing, many of the local residents walked through the ruins of the park, along the water side and the series of concession stands. The shooting gallery ducks -- bullet ridden -- were gone, now one of many pieces of memorabilia removed.
Some people, however, were not sad at the park's closing.
"The noise got to you after a while," one man said, whose house was right on the border of the amusement park. "Sometimes, I just wanted to get out of bed and scream for everybody to shut up. Not that anyone would have heard."
But all agreed that the proposed condos were a bad idea.
"Look what happened in Florida," a store keeper from the far side of the lake told me." The condos are slowly sinking into slums. Once the builders sell, they could care less what happens. They use the worst materials available and some of those buildings are in worse shape than the buildings standing there now." He meant the ruins of the park. "And these have been up for sixty years," he said.
Another woman, who was walking her dog passed the haunted house, blamed the Yuppies.
"They have money and they think they can buy their way into any place they want," she said. "They see this lake and they want to have the best views. The town should buy this land and turn it into a park or something. Keep those greedy people out. Most of our families worked hard to get here."
People were concerned about other issues as well.
The water supply here comes mostly from wells. Most locals claimed a vast network of housing here would drain water from an already limited supply. Sewage was another issue, although the town spent most of the last decade since 1985 installing new lines to the island, in anticipation of the added units. But the town did not widen the roads, raising the concern among local parents for the safety of their children. The narrow lanes along which Frank, Jimmy and I once walked drunk in seeking Richi's house, could not handle sixty or seventy or a hundred additional cars. Locals feared the newcomers would speed through these roads, brining their urban habits to this rural world, leaving hurt children in their wake.
"These people have the idea that they can go anywhere and do anything they want," one of the fisherman told me. "No matter who it hurts. That's not right. Maybe we should leave the old park just the way it is, a kind of monument to a time when people mattered more than money."
Demolition of Bertrand's Park was originally slated for 1984, but the lack of an environmental impact statement, kept everything on hold for more than a year. Some local officials claimed that the construction on the site would cause the island to sink. Others -- in favor of the project -- rejected this idea as ridiculous. And for more than a decade, only local residents seemed to stand between the project's moving ahead. Local resistance could not stop the bulldozers from knocking the amusement park down, yet kept the construction from moving ahead until late 1997, when final approvals were granted.
In 1985, Wayne developer, not associated with the project, said resistance was futile.
"Condos are the way of the future," he said, "and if people don't move with the times, they'll get run over."
"Sure, they're going to build condos," another resident said. "The town says they don't want the buildings here, but they'll do everything make sure the roads are ready and the sewers work."
But to me, during that brief walk through the ruins in 1985, the ghosts also protested, accumulating memories from people around the state, the visits of children who are now grandparents, defending traditions modern society tends to destroy in the name of progress.
"I remember the cotton candy booth on the way out," a woman from Clifton told me later. "We always had to have cotton candy and got it all over the car as we drove home. That's the stuff you can't put a price tang on or build a condo over. That's the stuff people a hundred years from now won't know when they look at the condos there. It's as if the contractors and the bankers are stealing memories straight out of people's heads."
Dear Frog Legs
Well, we made it. Got here a week ago and it's just like the photographs. Bill loves the place and said he wants to live here. I told him not to be silly and that settled that. I couldn't see us living with all this smog.
Bill had a problem at the airport. The police spotted his pistol when he landed. They were nice but firm. He got hot and told them he was an investigator and needed the weapon in his work. They asked him why he needed it while on vacation. He finally admitted his discomfort without it. They said they'd mail it back to us when we got home. Such foolishness, really!
"You know, honey," Bill said, our first morning in town. "I've thought a lot about us since we've started this. I think things'll be better when we get back."
Bill's an optimist.
"Sure," I said. "We'll see."
He seemed satisfied with that. I guess he mellowed a little over the last few months, but too late to do us any good. It helps Charlie, I think. The boy looks up to his father now, and it's a shame it took Bill eighteen years to become human.
"Mom?" Charlie asked. "What's the matter with Dad?"
"Nothing, Charlie. Why?"
"I don't know. He just seems different. Disturbed. I can even talk to him now."
Maybe Bill wasn't as blind as I thought him to be and was changing deliberately. But you know I can't forget the years of grief he's caused.
The doorman sensed the distance between us when we arrived at the hotel, eyeing me as I climbed out of the cab. It's been years since any man has looked at me like that, admiring me from a distance and without even blushing. I was the one who blushed, but didn't turn away. I let him caress me with those eyes.
A doorman! My God, Los Angeles breeds some strange situations.
Later, when Bill was napping, I ventured down to the lobby and there he was between the potted palm trees and the elevator.
"Hello, Mrs. Merrian," he said.
"So you know my name," I said, fighting back a laugh of delight. In our room, I had second-guessed my first impression. But now, his manner confirmed it again.
"The desk clerk's a friend of mine," he said, a smile parting his thin lips.
"You have me at a disadvantage," I said. "I don't have a desk clerk to tell me yours."
His smile broadened, stretched the sun-browned skin around his mouth till it threatened to crack. "My name's Ben, Ben Taylor."
"Nice to meet you, Ben," I said. "My name's Jenny." I glanced once more into his eyes and again they captured me. "Do you always bother married women?"
He laughed. It was a clean, clear note which hung in the air between us like a chime. He seemed honest.
"No," he said. "Not always. But you looked so lonely--and lost."
Believe me, Peg, I nearly fainted. I couldn't imagine it being so obvious. And if it wasn't that obvious, then Ben was a mind reader. In either case, I decided then and there to know him better. Maybe I should have been ashamed. Maybe I should have thought of Charlie if not of Bill. But I needed something that Bill had never given me, something without I would dry up and die.
"I look lonely and lost?" I said, trying to make a joke of it.
"Are more. You're an elegant lady without time or place to display what you have."
I smiled. He was different and fresh and I liked him immediately.
"Look," he said, glancing nervously over his shoulder towards a half open door at the end of the lobby. "My boss'll be out in a minute. I'd like to see you later. Perhaps for a drink?"
I shook my head. "I'm only out now because my husband was tired from the trip."
"What about when he goes to sleep?"
A shivered rushed through me and a throb of a quite different kind near my thighs. The idea of a late night meeting touched off in me one of my most long sought-after desires. How could I refuse? I nodded my ascent, unwilling to trust my lips to such an answer.
"About midnight then?" he said, smiling as if he knew the thoughts as they tumbled in my head. Again, I nodded and went to turn. But his hand touched my shoulder for a moment -- a moment, Peg, I'll never forget. For with that touch the final wall of loyalty crumbled and I was free. Somehow, Ben knew this, too. He grinned and I left him there and stumbled into the elevator alone.
Bill grumbled himself to sleep around eleven and I stayed listening to his uneven breathing till I was certain he was off. Charlie was out somewhere, visiting the night life. He didn't worry me. He had another room and was certain to be in by twelve. I dressed quickly, leaving off my bra. It was a freedom, Peg, that I had longed to indulge myself, but Bill had been stern. Ben, I knew, wouldn't mind. You see I knew where I was going long before I left you there. Ben was convenient and he was sweet-- even more than I expected-- but if it had not been him, then someone else would have done. I needed it.
I dressed in a sheer silk blouse and a short black skirt, and slid into the hall. It seemed too well lit. My mood dictated a dim atmosphere with bared bulbs and long mysterious shadows. Instead, the hall had a tender brilliance of flame-like flickering bulbs, and my feet sank into a luxurious carpet. I flew down the sleek passage fearing discovery, wondering if Bill had heard me, or if Charlie might somehow see my escape. I took the stairs for the very same reasons, and these were more to my liking, lit mostly by dull red fire exit signs. I came back out to a lobby and a smiling Ben. His presence warmed me and I knew the future-- at least part of it.
"You look almost happy," he said.
And I smiled like a girl on her first date, dating a dream. I looked at him and no longer saw a young, high-spirited doorman, but a slick well-dressed man. My heart stopped. His cologne reached for me like hands, fingers digging at my bottom and tugging ever so gently. His open neck invited. I felt myself wanting to touch his chest, to run my fingers through the thick dark undergrowth that protruded from every pore.
He was no longer the unsure employee, glancing shyly towards an open office door, but an individual, solid and independent. His lips, once merely sensual, were now cruel and they dragged me towards him. I kissed them, searing myself on their heat. Suddenly his arm was around me, guiding me out into the night air and a waiting cab. We were off.
I only looked back once, Peg. It was enough. Bill's world could never be like this. His arms could never hold me like these could. It was exactly what I needed.
The lights of Hollywood only added to the feeling, thousands of stars glittering aimlessly in my eyes. Famous avenues passed me and my window as if they belonged to me, and I shivered in my silk as Ben's hands touched me. I couldn't think then, nor later, when the blaring sound of electric guitars caressed me as well. Oh, we danced! Ben taught me how to live and how to love right there on the dark scuffed surfaces of the tile. There, I lived like a woman Bill would have called a hussy, inviting with my movements, watching the eyes which surrounded me and devoured me-- while Ben only smiled. He saw those eyes and wasn't Jealous. Hardly the reaction I'd expected after all of Bill's rages. I was a bird flying in the storm clouds, feeling the cool thrill of rain upon my wings. Ben knew it and admired me as he watched my flight.
"You're beautiful," he said as he wrapped himself around me at the bar. "You're one far-out lady."
I smiled and took a deep breath of his musk. My body responded to him as he moved, and my lips mated with his -- our tongues dueling till I pushed him away, teasing.
"Give me a moment to breathe," I said and reached for my drink.
"I'll give you more than that," he said and we both laughed. I couldn't help laughing around him. It was infectious, just like our talk.
"You're one dynamite doorman," I said as I imagined him exploding in me.
"Oh, that!" he said. "It's just a job. I'm an actor, or at least, I want to be one. But then, doesn't everyone?"
"No, not me. I could never act."
"Sure, you could. We act everyday. You've been acting around your husband for a very long time. You're just not aware of it."
I thought about it for a moment. He was right, of course. But my excuse had always been my disappointment. I'd been trapped for so long that it was the only way to survive. I had to be two people. One who stayed on the outside for my husband. The other who hid inside. Once in a while, the inside person snuck out. She was out now with Ben. I smiled, looking straight into his eyes. He smiled back.
"Come on," he said, emptying his glass. "Let's get out of here."
At the door, we met Charlie. I didn't ask him what he was doing there. I simply stared at his eyes and the fire growing in them as he looked at me and Ben together. He was drunk. I could smell it all over him. But still he recognized the situation and for a moment his mouth hung open. Then, he retreated.
Fear pierced me briefly. But it faded quickly. Ben had not seen the boy and I didn't tell him. In the cab, I thought about it again, and again at the door to the motel. I knew they'd been waiting when I got back. I knew the marriage would never be the same. Still at the door to the room, I hesitated, but only for the briefest second. Then, I fell into Ben's strong arms. Maybe I would never go back.
c/o A.D. Sullivan
271 Terrace Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07307